Exploring Centralia

WARNING: This area is extremely dangerous. Underground fires release toxic gases and can cause unexpected ground openings. No one has died… yet. any visitors need to take extreme care and be very observant of their surroundings. any exploring is done at your own risk.

I read about Centralia on various exploring websites. Most sites give a brief overview of the history, but a Google search revealed much more detailed information about the history of the town. I decided to go on a road trip and this seemed like a good destination. I drove the 150 miles east from Bergen County out Route 80 and south down 81. The trip went easy and smooth and before I knew it I was at the closed off section of Route 61.

There is a large sign warning of toxic gases and unstable grounds. If you wanted, you probably could drive on it, but who’d want to risk their car that way? I parked on a dirt shoulder and began walking. I was told it was 5 minute walk away and sure enough, within a few minutes I saw the cracks in the highway and the smoke pouring from them. One section of roadway was elevated nearly 2-3 feet. It looked like the kind of thing you see after an earthquake. I keep face masks in my bag of supplies but didn’t feel concerned enough to wear one. After taking a few pictures I headed back to the car.

I continued along the Route 61 bypass and passed a cool abandoned structure. This was a bath house where miners would go to wash off after a days work. I headed into town, not really sure where to go. I could see 3 homes that clearly were still occupied, but there were large patches of open fields. Periodically I saw a set of stairs or what looked like a curb and a driveway. That was all the evidence to show that there had once been homes and businesses here. The homes were demolished when the people sold to the government, which necessitated structural supports be built when one owner of a row house refused to sell.

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There wasn’t much to see. I counted 4 buildings, a mobile home and the municipal building. Ironically I saw that the “town” had erected Christmas decorations on the light poles, making me wonder if the mayor wasn’t also the police chief, the fire chief, and half the town council. Was there still a municipal government? Did they still have to pay taxes?

As I drove I saw giant plumes of smoke coming off a hillside, much larger then the smoke coming from the cracks in Route 61. I headed that way and trudged through a small field. I could see what appeared to be the metal frame of playground swingset, sitting among a trash laden hillside, smoke emanating at random from various spots. There was no heat. There were no open cracks. Smoke just appeared and flew off as the wind carried it away before more smoke appeared from somewhere else. There was a house, still occupied, not 150 yards away. I couldn’t smell anything strange, but I didn’t feel comfortable staying very long.

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I drove around but every road was pitted with potholes and overgrown with weeds and bushes,. Some roads simply dead-ended, as if they were built for no reason, and to go nowhere. Somewhere off to the side, would’ve been a house, but now the road had no function. Maybe it wasn’t even a road, maybe it was a driveway. Despite the warmth of the sunny day, the wind blew coldly and I kept driving.

I had heard that smoke came up thru the cemetery, and headed there next. I now could see there was a road through the landfill. Steep and pitted I parked at the edge and hiked the hill and got some fantastic photographs. I wore the face mask this time. I ran into a local college professor who taught geology. She told me more about the history of the area, and about the metal vents used to release the gas from underground.

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After the landfill I cruised the cemetery. It seemed clear that eventually the cemetery would be consumed and I wondered if they would move the bodies or simply let them be claimed by the coal fire. I wonder if there would be anything to move considered the underground heat the fire generates.

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